As Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman down played hopes for Middle East peace in the near future a key political ally of the prime minister said Monday Israel should ignore American objections and expand Jewish settlements as Israeli warplanes pounded tunnels in Gaza.
Foreign Minister Lieberman said the only achievement peace talks were likely to make in the coming years was improving security and helping the Palestinian economy. The minister also warned against any attempt to impose a deal.
"The Palestinians’ radical and uncompromising positions on Jerusalem, the right of return and the settlement blocs create an unbridgeable gap between us and them," Lieberman told a delegation of U.S. Democratic lawmakers.
"Therefore, Israeli policy must be based on reality and not illusion while maintaining the dialogue between us and the Palestinians, improving security arrangements and the economic condition of the Palestinians," he said.
"This is the maximum we can reach in the coming years," Lieberman’s office quoted the ultra-nationalist minister as saying.
"Any other extravagant goal such as imposing an agreement that is limited in time, would again end in failure, disappointment and even confrontation," Lieberman told the U.S. delegation, possibly referring to the failed Annapolis peace talks launched by the former president George W. Bush.
Obama has vowed to work vigorously to end the decades-old conflict and his administration is attempting to put the faltering Middle East peace talks back on track following their suspension in December.
The United States is also putting heavy pressure on hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, a key Palestinian demand for talks to resume.
But in a blow to U.S. efforts a key political ally of Netanyahu said that Israel must go ahead with plans to expand a Jewish settlement enclave in occupied land despite U.S. objections.
The remarks by Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the religious Shas party illustrated the pressure Netanyahu faces from his right-wing coalition partners to resist Washington’s calls to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
"You cannot tell us we must not build within the settlement blocs," said Yishai, whose party holds a pivotal number of seats in Netanyahu’s four-month-old coalition, on a visit to a West Bank settlement.
Yishai said he hoped Israel would persuade Obama that expanding settlements near Jerusalem, that Israel seeks to keep under any future peace deal, was vital for "security, national interests and is just and necessary."
Yishai was visiting a hilltop known as Area E, which Israel seeks to build on to create territorial contiguity between a larger neighboring settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and Jerusalem.
Palestinians fear the project Israel has planned for Area E would isolate them from East Jerusalem which they want as capital of a future state.
The settlement issue has opened a rift in Israeli-U.S. relations and Obama has sought through his envoy to the region, George Mitchell, to negotiate at least a temporary halt to the construction.
In related news, Israeli warplanes struck the Gaza Strip near the southern city of Rafah in the first air strike against the strip since June 14.
Warplanes bombed an area where tunnels are known to run under the border to Egypt to evade Israel’s crippling blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed the attack, saying a smuggling tunnel had been targeted.
The Israeli army also said Palestinian fighters fired mortar rockets on Sunday at the Karni and Erez border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel, and caused no casualties or damage.
Later on Monday Palestinians fired another mortar shell against southern Israel, an Israeli army spokesman said, adding that it landed in an open area, causing no damage.
(Alarabiya.net English and Agencies)